Darryl F. Zanuck wrestles with enlightened goodness in Somerset Maugham's novel. Zanuck wins.
Mar 4, 2011
What if Somerset Maugham had written a novel about a coal miner who decided to search for transcendental enlightenment by trying to join a country club? If he had, he could have called it The Razor's Edge, since the Katha-Upanishad tells us, "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard."
But Maugham decided to stick with the well-bred class, and so we have Darryl F. Zanuck's version of Larry Darrell, recently returned from WWI, carefully groomed, well connected in society and determined to find himself by becoming a coal miner.
Or, as Maugham tells us, "This is the young man of whom I write. He is not famous. It may be that when at last his life comes to an end he will leave no more trace of his sojourn on this earth than a stone thrown into a river leaves on the surface of the water. Yet it may be that the way of life he has chosen for himself may have an ever growing influence over his fellow men, so that, long after his death, perhaps, it will be realized that lived in this age a very remarkable creature."
The Razor's Edge has all of Zanuck's cultural taste that his studio's money could buy. The movie is so earnest, so sincere...so self-important. As Larry goes about his search for wisdom, working in mines, on merchant ships, climbing a Himalayan mountain to learn from an ancient wise man, we meet his selfish girl friend, Isabel, played by Gene Tierney, his tragic childhood chum played by Anne Baxter, the girlfriend's snobbish and impeccably clad uncle played by Clifton Webb, and Willie Maugham himself, played by Herbert Marshall taking notes. The movie is so insufferably smug about goodness that the only thing that perks it up a bit is Clifton Webb as Elliot Templeton. "If I live to be a hundred I shall never understand how any young man can come to Paris without evening clothes." Webb has some good lines, but we wind up appreciating Clifton Webb, not Templeton.
Zanuck wanted a prestige hit for Twentieth Century when he bought the rights to Maugham's novel. He waited a year until Tyrone Power was released from military service. He made sure there were well-dressed extras by the dozens, a score that sounds as if it were meant for a cathedral and he even wrote some of the scenes himself. The effort is as self-conscious as a fat man wearing a rented tux. Despite Hollywood's view of things in The Razor's Edge, I can tell you that for most people hard work doesn't bring enlightenment, just weariness and low pay.
After nearly two-and-a-half hours, we last see Larry carrying his duffle bag on board a tramp steamer in a gale. He's going to work his way back to America from Europe with a contented smile on his face. "My dear," Somerset Maugham says to Isabel at the same time in an elaborately decorated parlor, "Larry has found what we all want and what very few of us ever get. I don't think anyone can fail to be better, and nobler, kinder for knowing him. You see, my dear, goodness is after all the greatest force in the world...and he's got it!"
Larry and the audience both need a healthy dose of ipecac.